WARREN, Minn. — A career in soil and water conservation is one way to take a trip and never go far from the farm.

“I still have farming in my blood,” said Darren Carlson, 44, standing outside the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District. He’s slated to become overall manager in a month.

Darren Carlson is a program manager with the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District at Warren, Minn. Photo taken Jan. 25, 2021., at Warren, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Darren Carlson is a program manager with the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District at Warren, Minn. Photo taken Jan. 25, 2021., at Warren, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Carlson grew up on a 1,200-acre small grain and 60-cow dairy farm at nearby Angus, Minn. His parents, Mylo and Marlene, sold the cows in 1998 put most of their land into the Conservation Reserve Program. His oldest sister, DeAnna Zink, is the chief executive officer of the University of North Dakota Alumni Association Foundation at Grand Forks, N.D. Brother Michael, 53, is a technician at Marshall SWCD, and his sister is Dr. Kimberly Molacek, an optometrist at Milaca, Minn.

The youngest among his siblings, Darren graduated from Warren High School in 1995. He started at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, about 30 miles away, and helped the family with their cows. In 1997, Darren quit school to farm full-time. But a harsh winter and spring flooding changed his mind.

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“I decided, ‘This isn’t for me,’” he recalls.

In 1998, they sold the cows.

Darren went back to UMN-Crookston, where he switched to a natural resources degree, with an emphasis in soil and water management.

“I thought this was a way to still work with rural landowners, farmers, and still live in a smaller community,” he said.

In 1999, he started with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service at Farmington, Minn., in Dakota County, just south of the Twin Cities. He shifted to county posts with Scott County SWCD in 2003 and then back to Dakota County to work with the SWCD in 2008. He married his first wife in 2007. The first of three sons was born in 2008.

In 2009, Darren moved his family to be close to his family at Angus, Minn., and worked on a high school classmate’s family farm. In 2010 he took a job as district manager for the Kittson County SWCD and commuted an hour each way to Hallock, Minn. The marriage ended in 2014, but he has remained in the community where his three sons live.

020821.AG.PeopleCarlsonConservationManager02.jpg
The Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District at Warren, Minn., and associated federal offices, have scheduled its appointments mostly over the phone  or in online meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo taken Jan. 25, 2021, Warren, Minn.  Mikkel Pates  / Agweek
020821.AG.PeopleCarlsonConservationManager02.jpg The Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District at Warren, Minn., and associated federal offices, have scheduled its appointments mostly over the phone or in online meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo taken Jan. 25, 2021, Warren, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In 2015, Darren was hired as Marshall SWCD program manager in Warren. In 2019 he married Jessica Myrfield, who grew up on a nearby farm.

Darren is excited about conservation. The staff — including his older brother, Michael — works deals with a number of governmental bodies, working on using cost-share dollars for conservation. With COVID-19 restrictions, there are a lot of phone and teleconference issues.

He rattles off a list of programs. Among them, is providing “conservation-grade trees” for farmstead shelterbelts, field windbreaks and snow fences. The Marshall SWCD also provides a planting drill so landowners can rent it or hire the district to plant the required Conservation Reserve Program mixes, or to plant the state’s mandatory conservation buffer strips.

Among the other programs:

  • Culverts. The district works with private engineers to survey locations for culverts that drain crop fields into county ditches or judicial ditches, and pay 75% cost-share assistance.

A waterway project completed by the Marshall (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District,  under construction, as of this photo, July 24, 2017, in Marshall County, Minn. Courtesy Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District / Agweek
A waterway project completed by the Marshall (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District, under construction, as of this photo, July 24, 2017, in Marshall County, Minn. Courtesy Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District / Agweek

A waterway project completed by the Marshall (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District,  at completion. Photo taken July 30, 2017 in Marshall County, Minn. Courtesy Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District / Agweek
A waterway project completed by the Marshall (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District, at completion. Photo taken July 30, 2017 in Marshall County, Minn. Courtesy Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District / Agweek

A waterway project completed by the Marshall (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District, a month after completion. Sept. 17, 2017 in Marshall County, Minn. Courtesy Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District / Agweek
A waterway project completed by the Marshall (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District, a month after completion. Sept. 17, 2017 in Marshall County, Minn. Courtesy Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District / Agweek

  • Equipment loans. The district offers low-interest loans (3% or less, up to $200,000) to purchase equipment — air drill or variable-rate sprayer, or GPS unit, for example — that improves water quality.

  • Sealing abandoned wells. The district pays up to 50% of the cost of sealing abandoned wells. This combines with a 40% share from the county, for a 10% cost to landowners. They do about 20 a year.

Carlson said his favorite part of the job is talking with farmers and looking at aerial maps to learn about their problems with erosion or other issues. It’s a good way to make a living near his family in a community he loves and near a farm that is close to his heart.